Gabe Lee is an embodiment of the American Dream. Born to Taiwanese immigrants in Nashville, Lee has also been a fan of country music his entire life, although his introduction to music was more of the classical flavor.
While his father sang and played guitar, his mother taught him piano. Although it didn’t stick with him, his parents’ - and specifically his mother’s - passion for music did.
However, even though he credits his parents for instilling this love for music within him, it was others who turned him onto the country and southern rock that now makes up his sound. Lee says that parents of his friends were instrumental in putting artists like John Prine, Bob Dylan and Lynyrd Skynyrd on his radar, sending him down a rabbit hole of music that would forever change his life.
“My mother’s love for music made me want to write my own music, but early on practising and playing piano was the last thing I wanted to do,” said Lee. “I don’t think my actual love for making music came until I walked away from it a bit.”
That break from music came just a few years later when Lee was in college. In the midst of pursuing a music degree at Belmont University in Nashville, he opted to start learning the business on his own terms. This led him to transfer to Indiana University to study journalism; while there he eventually found his way back to music. There he befriended several students of the school’s music program and started jamming with them, slowly rediscovering his passion and how to pair language with song.
Since then he’s gone on to have a successful run in the music business doing things his own way, just as he desired. To date he’s released three albums with another, The Hometown Kid, expected this summer. He’s also opened for some of the top acts in country, rock n roll and bluegrass such as Jason Isbell, Brent Cobb, Molly Tuttle, American Aquarium and Texas legend Terry Allen.
This success comes despite being one of very few Asian Americans in mainstream country music - even though their presence in Nashville dates back almost 60 years with Japan’s Tomi Fujiyama, who in 1964 made her Grand Ole Opry debut, following up Johnny Cash with a performance of ‘Tennessee Waltz’.
With organizations like the Americana Music Association and Black Opry pushing toward more inclusiveness in the industry, Lee hopes that the welcoming of more voices will include more Asian Americans such as himself.
“You always want to win people over, but if you look and sound different you can run into some roadblocks,” said Lee. “As a listener, I’m going to judge an artist by their production and their songwriting before I pay any attention to what they look like, but I know that’s not the case for everyone.”
Country is a renowned space for telling stories - something people from every walk of life have. With mainstream country tending to get stuck in the pattern of songs focused on Jesus, booze, women and trucks, it’s important now more than ever that artists, producers and promoters from diverse backgrounds get a seat at the table to share their experiences, ideas and perspectives.
“You know what you’re gonna get every time Dan & Shay take the stage, which is great harmonies, great vocals and songs that make you feel good,” said Lee. “Sometimes you need somebody to shake things up though, and we’re not afraid to do that.”
Helping Lee to pave the way is the breadth of his musical tastes, ranging from traditional country to gospel, southern rock, bluegrass and even punk rock. He joined Holler to discuss his melting pot of inspirational influences.
While in middle and high school, Lee admittedly went through what he describes as a “weird” punk rock phase that ended up introducing him to artists like Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. At the center of this phase was the album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and in particular ‘Luna’, a song about a prostitute who wanders into a party on her way home.
“Conor Oberst is a very graphic and guttural songwriter. He makes you feel every word,” said Lee. “I fell hard for his music early on before I really understood songwriting for myself.”
Another musical influence stemming from Lee’s teen years is Wilco. While he adores the entire catalog of the alt-country pioneers, the album Sky Blue Sky stands out, even as Lee admits it may irk some diehard Wilco fans that view Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as the band’s seminal album.
“Nels Cline’s guitar playing on that album is incredible. He does a song called ‘Either Way’ that I’ve always looked back at the production on. Everything was layered perfectly - laid back drums, bass line, guitar, melody and piano - it made me think that if I ever had a rock band, this is what I would want it to sound like.”
Who doesn’t love John Prine? Lee isn’t exempt from the Prine fandom, admittedly being head over heels for the legend’s entire catalog. However, the album German Afternoons holds a special place in his heart. Not only does it include ‘Paradise’, arguably Prine’s most recognizable hit, but also ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’, a favorite of Lee’s that he enjoys covering during his own shows.
Drawn to Prine by the production and delivery of his songs, Lee mused, “It’s like you’re just hanging out with him in his studio or living room as if you were best friends. He was always so laid back, which is something I try to emulate in my music as well.”
Jackson Browne’s 1977 live album, Running on Empty, is a compilation of songs documenting life on the road that features recordings from various shows and places associated with touring: green rooms, hotels and tour buses.
“This album has some of my favorite Jackson Browne songs on it, like ‘Running On Empty’ and ‘Shaky Town’, plus I just love the instrumentation and energy captured through these live recordings. It’s easily my favorite live album in existence.”
A huge fan of both Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Lee is particularly fond of Parsons’ posthumous album Grievous Angel, that was released four months after his sudden death by drug overdose in 1974. Featuring cuts like ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’, ‘Love Hurts’, ‘In My Hour of Darkness’ and ‘Hearts on Fire’, the album - and each respective artist - remain at the forefront of Lee’s influences to this day.
“I’m a big fan of Gram and his work with the Flying Burrito Brothers, but nothing beats his work with Emmylou Harris. She’s my favorite country singer of all time. I get a lot of inspiration from the music she’s made with Parsons, Rodney Crowell and on her own. She’s the quintessential songbird. I love Dolly too, but Emmylou’s peaceful energy is something I’m particularly drawn to.”
Gabe Lee’s third studio album, The Hometown Kid, is expected to be released in summer 2022.